Tailoring to the custom publisher

Revenues have doubled in the past half-decade and there's a growing interest in the look and feel of the titles. Indeed, custom publishing is coming into its own.

Revenues have doubled in the past half-decade and there's a growing interest in the look and feel of the titles. Indeed, custom publishing is coming into its own.

Custom publications are sometimes given short shrift in the traditional media world, but they are nonetheless a viable option for pitching.

Although the client sponsoring the publication has the final say over content, articles are often written by journalists, and can be a vehicle for companies in vertical markets.

Moreover, custom publishing houses are realizing that to compete with the mainstream media for readership, they need to shift from information-focused newsletters toward glossier formats that stress layout and graphics as much as content.

"Although it is branded editorial, more and more custom magazines are coming closer to the consumer magazines in look, feel, and editorial goals," says Jane Ottenberg, president of the Magazine Group, a custom publishing house in Washington, DC. "We just launched a magazine for WebMd that goes in waiting rooms at doctors' offices around the US. Brooke Shields was on our first cover, and Susan Sarandon is on our second cover talking about her health regimen."

An industry on the rise

The custom publishing industry is in midst of a five-year boom that has seen annual revenues nearly double to $35.5 billion, according to the Custom Publishing Council. What's more, custom titles are actively looking for interesting content and stories that aren't focused solely on the company that's sponsoring the publication.

"If you want to create something consumers will like and want to read again, you need to give them the things they're used to seeing in traditional publishing," says Fred Petrovsky, SVP of publishing at Phoenix-based custom publisher McMurry. "If you're only writing about a single company, then it's a brochure."

Not only are the stories in many custom published outlets similar to the editorial content of a traditional magazine, but oftentimes they're being handled by the same writers.

"We use mostly freelancers because it allows us to bring some 'best of breed' to it," says Kenna Simmons, senior account supervisor and manager of the customer publishing offerings at Edelman. "Even when we do medical publications that undergo peer reviews, we use medical writers who also write for other health-related titles."

Unlike consumer magazines, custom publications have a controlled circulation, though Joe Pulizzi, director of Cleveland-based Penton Custom Media, says the biggest difference is the extent of client involvement.

"We have some publications where the client insists on the hard sell, but we try to explain that it shouldn't always be about driving leads," he says. "It can also be about creating an experience through a magazine that people want to read."

Simmons notes that most custom publishing clients don't want to be actively involved in creating the editorial. But she adds, "They are probably going to want to see it before it goes out."

Given that some custom publications really do read like a lifestyle magazine, they certainly can be targets for PR firms, even if their clients aren't involved in sponsoring the content.

Focusing on content

"There are custom published magazines like the airline magazines which are really appropriate for PR pitches," Michael Hurley, director and publisher of New York-based Hearst Custom Publishing.

But Lori Rosen, executive director of the Custom Publishing Council, admits that custom magazines are much harder to reach with story ideas.

"It's a bit of a challenge for PR people to pitch custom publications because it takes an extra step or two," she says. "With traditional magazines, you can go to Bacon's or check the masthead, but here it's a little more difficult to find whom to pitch and what they are looking for."

Despite the fact that custom publications often look like traditional magazines, most consumers are going to be able to tell them apart. But custom publishers are divided on whether that knowledge dilutes the content for them.

"They absolutely know the difference because they're getting it for free, and clearly it's edit that's created for a singular purpose rather than appealing to a wide audience," says Hurley.

"I would say most readers are fairly smart and can tell the difference, but the bigger question is, do they care?" McMurry's Petrovsky adds. "Readers want something that will help them in their daily lives, so as long as you give it to them in a creative and interesting format, they're going to be happy."

Pitching... custom titles

  • There are more than 100,000 custom publications in circulation. They're a bit harder to research, but many of them actively seek good content relevant to their consumers

  • Much like the consumer press, many custom magazines now have a web component that enables their stories and messages to reach beyond their initial targeted readership

  • Freelance writers often do double duty, contributing to both consumer and custom titles, so they can be effective conduits to a custom magazine editor when pitching a story idea

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